Chaplin and Benigni: The Arrogance of Clowns

So I went up to Cambridge, to the Harvard Film Archive, recently to denounce Charlie Chaplin and Roberto Benigni as “arrogant clowns.”

Well, it wasn’t quite that simple. The Harvard Film Archive and the Harvard Book Store (a terrific independent book store on Massachusetts Avenue) had invited me to speak about my book ( Explaining Hitler ) and about Chaplin’s Hitler spoof The Great Dictator in conjunction with a screening of the film. Which forced me to do two things I wouldn’t otherwise have done: see the Chaplin film again; I hadn’t watched it in the 10 years I’d been working on the Hitler book. And see Life Is Beautiful , which I’d been resisting like crazy because I sensed the rage I’d feel about the self-congratulatory Italian clown and his feel-good fable of the Holocaust might be unbearable. And it was. It still is. But I’ll get to that in a moment. I want to speak first about the Chaplin film, which-in giving us a feel-good fable about Hitler that glorifies its self-aggrandizing clown-hero maker-might be called Life Is Beautiful, The Prequel .

The Great Dictator is one of those rarely questioned classics given knee-jerk obeisance because the film buffs dictate to us that we should revere it. It’s Chaplin, after all! The Little Tramp takes on Hitler! How could you not love it?

Well, let me count the ways.

Let me begin by talking about the inadvertent-and perhaps tragic-consequences the comic persona of Charlie Chaplin may have had on real-life history for the crucial decades (1920 to 1940) before the October 1940 release of The Great Dictator . Tragic consequences Chaplin could have addressed and redressed in The Great Dictator , a film he wrote and financed as well as directed and starred in, giving him total creative control. Tragic consequences which he instead compounded, out of vanity and arrogance-the arrogance of clowns-the arrogant assumption that even the most intransigent evil can be dissolved in the mocking laughter of the triumphant clown. Tragic consequences because of a terrible missed opportunity to really take on Hitler in a scathing, satiric way at a time when a still-neutral America was deciding whether to assist those at war with Hitler. A missed opportunity the dimensions of which are signaled by the little-known fact that Chaplin was lionized for The Great Dictator by the right-wing, isolationist, “America First” Daughters of the American Revolution for its “antiwar” message, one that served the interests of the Hitler appeasers at the time; the knee-jerk Chaplin-worshipping film buffs either don’t know-or don’t want to remind anyone-that their hero got a D.A.R. award for The Great Dictator at a time when the D.A.R. was trying to cripple F.D.R.’s efforts to aid those fighting the Führer .

In any case, in my talk at the Harvard Film Archives, I began by tracing the origin of these tragic consequences to its comic source: the mustache. No less a personage than H.R. Trevor-Roper (now Lord Dacre), the dean of the Oxbridge historians’ profession, author of one of the first-and still one of the most influential-postwar visions of Hitler ( The Last Days of Hitler ), reached for the mustache when seeking to explain to me, one evening in London, the tragic underestimation of Hitler in the 30’s: “The conventional wisdom about Hitler was always-before the war at least, till Munich-he was taking off from the Music Hall, he looked ridiculous-he had the Charlie Chaplin mustache …”

That ‘stache: It was Chaplin’s first, before Hitler’s; Chaplin adopted a little black crepe blot beneath the nose for his Mack Sennett silent comedies after 1915, Hitler didn’t adopt his until late 1919, and there’s no evidence (though some speculation) that Hitler modeled his ‘stache on that other actor’s.

More important was the relationship, the tale of two mustaches, that developed after they both became international sensations, global media stars in the 20’s. More important was the way Chaplin’s mustache became a lens through which to look at Hitler. A lens, a glass, in which Hitler became merely Chaplinesque: a figure to be mocked more than feared, a comic villain whose pretensions would collapse of his own disproportionate weight like the Little Tramp collapsing on his cane. Someone to be ridiculed rather than resisted. No, I’m not saying the mustache was the cause of the tragic underestimation of Hitler, but it fed into and embodied a deeply flawed vision. A predisposition not to explain Hitler but to explain him away.

Of course, the relationship, the similarities between Chaplin and Hitler went deeper than the mustache, as others have pointed out. Both in their formative years had been lonely outsiders, homeless tramps for a time. Both were at times rumored to be Jewish, both thought of themselves as artists (while Hitler failed in his conventional ambitions as artist he succeeded in turning the Nazi project into what the philosopher Berel Lang has called a consciously sculpted “art of evil”). Both were powerful actors-manipulators of mass audiences and mass emotion and sentiment. And both specialized in one emotion in particular: self-pity. They were both geniuses of self-pity, Chaplin wringing self-congratulatory tears from millions for his self-pitying “Little Tramp.” Hitler whipping millions of Germans into frenzies of self-pity with his vision of their victimization by Jewish, Communist conspiracies to immiserate them.

I suspect the power of self-pity has been vastly underestimated as a factor in history. But there’s another quality they shared, one mixed somehow inextricably with the self-pity: arrogance. An arrogance less obvious on the surface in Chaplin than Hitler, but still quite profound. It was after seeing Mr. Benigni’s feel-good fable of the Holocaust, with its Death Camp Lite setting and its cheap, insulting optimism about physical and spiritual survival, a vision of the Final Solution that amounts to an esthetic version of Holocaust denial, that the phrase first occurred to me: the arrogance of clowns. An arrogance of clowns that for some reason seems to feed on the Final Solution. Jerry Lewis’ long unreleased fable of a clown in a death camp, The Day the Clown Cried , makes Mr. Benigni’s the hat trick of the clowns ‘n’ genocide genre. (I can’t resist quoting National Public Radio critic Elvis Mitchell calling Mr. Benigni “the Patch Adams of the Holocaust,” and wondering, as Gerry Peary, the astute Boston Phoenix columnist, does, why so many Jews-starting with the Weinstein brothers at Miramax-celebrate this hideously condescending trivialization of their tragedy. A film so self-congratulatory, so self-reverential about its star’s puny posturing, it ought to be called not Life is Beautiful , but I Am Beautiful .)

Don’t get me wrong-I have nothing against clowns per se, although the thought of watching Patch Adams makes me break out in a rash. But there is something grating about their arrogance: Perhaps it’s the insecurity and self-pity it masks. If you have to apply grotesque smears of greasepaint to your face to get a laugh, you can’t have much confidence in your native endowment of humor. And clowns are, in a way, if not great dictators, then petty ones: You must laugh. I am funny. I’m a clown . (To me the emblematic clown in American culture, the one that exposes the true horror of clownhood, is John Wayne Gacy, the serial killer who dressed up as a clown at children’s parties when not viciously throttling to death his scores of victims.)

The only clowns I really like are the growing genre of anti-clowns the culture has spawned in reaction to in-your-face clowning: the brilliant, incomparable Krusty the Clown on The Simpsons ; the late, lamented Homie the Clown from In Living Color ; and, of course, Shakes the Clown from the Bobcat Goldthwait movie of that name, which has been called “the Citizen Kane of alcoholic clown movies.”

Let’s look at the arrogance of clowns, and the form it takes in the Holocaust Lite hat trick, as I think of The Great Dictator , Life Is Beautiful and The Day the Clown Cried . (Isn’t it fascinating-well, pathetic, self-pitying and arrogant-the way clowns assume their tears are so special ? Gee, a clown cried! How ironic .) At its heart is the belief that clowning reigns supreme, that clowning can overcome, transcend the most intractable evil and that clowning, clowns are somehow in themselves triumphs of the human spirit. One of the most offensive things Mr. Benigni has done in his intoxication with the unmerited success of Life Is Beautiful is to claim Primo Levi, the great Holocaust writer and thinker, as his inspiration. The self-infatuated clown has distorted some remark Levi made about a moment in Auschwitz that felt dreamlike into a license to flog the meretricious moral that make-believe can triumph over the death camps. If only the Jews in the camp had a sense of humor about their situation! If only they had Mr. Benigni’s brilliant and profound vision to turn it all into a game! If only they didn’t act so depressed, most of them would have survived, as they do in Life Is Beautiful . Life is beautiful, yes, for Mr. Benigni, now that he’s become the grandiose prophet of death camp fun.

Chaplin’s arrogance in The Great Dictator is manifested in what might be called a grandiose act of intellectual laziness. Given a chance to take on Hitler, to do something genuinely scathing, something that might cut deep (as, for instance, the brilliant satires on Hitler penned by the brave, doomed anti-Hitler Munich editor Fritz Gerlich) he took the lazy clown’s way out. His Hitler is a harmless schlemiel who falls down stairs. No need to resist someone who will probably collapse of his own accord. His Hitler is, beneath the bluster, a wistful Chaplinesque dreamer, especially in that famous, overrated (and deeply misleading) dance with a globe balloon, no more truly menacing than, say, Dabney Coleman as the mean boss in 9 to 5 .

I could cite 10 more things I hate about The Great Dictator . The way Chaplin both stereotypes and blames Jews for their plight. (His Hitler figure only turns on the Jews after a Jewish banker turns him down for a loan.) Hitler’s anti-Semitism then is just an opportunistic tool, not a deep genocidal hatred; treat Hitler a little better, Patch Chaplin seems to say, and the Jews will be fine. All dictators are just “unloved.” Get Hitler some serious nooky and he won’t have time to hate. Then there’s his vision of the Hitler henchmen-at worst, harmless buffoons out of the Bowery Boys comedies, at best noble protectors of Chaplin’s little Jewish barber character. And the storm troopers. Hey, they’re human, they respond to beauty . When Paulette Goddard, the little Jewish laundress with the prettily smudged face who’s initially insulted by the storm troopers, gets a beautifying makeover and gauzy lens treatment from Chaplin (as barber and director), suddenly the storm troopers are super- polite to her. See, if only the Jews had cleaned themselves up a bit, no Holocaust.

Why have the Chaplin-worshipers continued to celebrate this offensive piece of tripe? In part, I think, because many of them are tunnel-vision film buffs who have estheticized themselves into insensibility. One member of the audience at my Harvard Film Archive talk opined that The Great Dictator wasn’t about Hitler at all, that it was really about Chaplin’s dissatisfaction with the shift from silent to sound films (he seemed to believe that Chaplin’s childish mangling of the German language-Ha! Ha! The Germans talk funny! That’s what’s wrong with Hitler!-was an attack on language itself, thus on the talkies. What a waste of a brain.)

But the true locus of the disgraceful failure of the film is its final six-minute speech in which Chaplin-perhaps aware of how grotesquely inadequate his clowning has been-speaks directly, out of character, as himself, to the camera.

Here, given the opportunity to take on Hitler directly, before an audience of millions at a crucial moment in history, he never mentions Hitler’s name, never mentions Nazism. Instead, he gives the world rambling, incoherent effusions on peace and love and can’t we all get along. Effusions that some have called the product of the Hitler-Stalin Pact and the Communist Party line of that moment: that the working classes of the Western democracies shouldn’t resist Stalin’s ally Hitler because the struggle against Hitler was a misguided “capitalists’ war.” Effusions that won Chaplin the enthusiastic plaudits of the right-wing pro-appeasement lobby as well. The only people the arrogant clown managed to “bring together” then with his foolish and damaging feel-good fantasy were the Stalinists and the Hitler appeasers. Oh, and yes, that other arrogant and ignorant clown Roberto Benigni, so vocal in claiming the Chaplin mantle. Wear that mantle like a shroud, Roberto. Life is beautiful for you , but not for the dead you insult.